The latest court challenge in a steady line of leading youth-led climate cases

Youth climate activists are boldly bringing climate mitigation cases in courts around the world, challenging the inadequacy of respective governments’ climate change ambitions and policies. South Korea is the latest country whose courts are set to hear such a case.

The claim, filed on 13 March 2020 by 19 teenage members of Youth 4 Climate Action (YCA), is being brought against the South Korean Government on constitutional and human rights grounds. YCA alleges that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions target is insufficient to avoid the harmful effects of climate change, thereby breaching fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. It is the first such action by a climate youth group in East Asia, and follows similar youth-led climate cases worldwide.

Climate change and human rights

Two landmark decisions in 2015 demonstrated that climate change litigation based on human rights arguments and where there are specific constitutional protections could succeed. The Urgenda case, brought on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, established that the Dutch Government had a legal duty to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, whilst the Lahore High Court’s ruling in the Ashgar Leghari case confirmed that the Federation of Pakistan’s lack of action on climate change had infringed its citizens’ rights to life, dignity and property. Both countries’ courts found that their governments, in line with their human rights obligations, must take steps to mitigate the impact of climate change on their citizens.

South Korean claim

YCA, supported by law firm S&L Partners and advocacy group Solutions for Our Climate, alleges that the South Korean Government has violated the country’s Constitution for three reasons.

First, the youth group contends that the target to reduce South Korea’s annual greenhouse gas emissions to 536 million tonnes by 2030 – 24% less than its 2017 emissions – is not sufficiently low to prevent a dangerous rise in global temperatures. The youths argue that this target favours the current generation over future generations, thus failing to protect them from the negative effects of climate change and infringing their constitutional rights, including the rights to life, to health, to a clean environment and to pursue happiness.

Second, YCA claims that Article 42 of the Framework Act on Low Carbon, Green Growth violates the Constitution, as it gives the Government absolute discretion to set emissions targets.

Third, YCA maintains that a further breach of the Constitution was committed in 2016, when the Government replaced the 2020 emissions target with the current 2030 target, even though there had been no significant reduction in emissions.

The Democratic Party recently won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections, and, if it implements the policies in its climate manifesto this could represent a wind of change, with South Korea becoming the first country in East Asia to pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Immediate measures would need to be taken to achieve this, since 40% of South Korea’s energy is generated from coal, and it is the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the world.

Global youth-led climate actions

Climate actions based on constitutional and human rights arguments have now been filed against national governments by or on behalf of youth in Canada, Colombia, India, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, South Korea, Uganda and the USA. Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit US-based law firm, has led or supported several of these actions, including Juliana v. United States, brought on behalf of 21 young plaintiffs against the US Federal Government.

Additionally, sixteen children from around the world, represented by Hausfeld and Earthjustice, submitted a groundbreaking petition to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 23 September 2019. The petitioners assert that Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey have violated their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by perpetuating and causing the climate crisis.


We expect to see more of this type of litigation, in addition to the climate actions we are already involved in, as the international climate youth movement gathers pace. We will continue to assist with the CRC petition and other climate matters, and will watch with great interest to see how YCA’s case moves through South Korea’s courts in light of recent political developments – and whether it will set an important precedent for new environmental standards in Asia.

With thanks to intern James Hilton for his assistance with this blog.

Other Perspectives